When Ann Patchett was little, her grandmother drew her baths. Now grown-up, she feels privileged to return the favor. A granddaughter muses about age, youth, reversals of body and mind—and love's long haul.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother lived in Paradise, California, and based on the summer vacations my sister and I spent at her house, the name of the town was fitting. She taught us to knit and sew and make our own doughnuts. Beneath her sink was a box containing turpentine, brushes, and three dozen tiny bottles of enamel paint, and we spent afternoons making pictures of frogs and quail on the smooth rocks we brought home from Lake Shasta.
Life could not have devised a better grandmother. She owned a dog and was not interested in television. She let me fill up books of S&H Green Stamps and spend them any way I pleased. At night I stood on a stool in front of her kitchen sink and she rinsed my hair with lemon water.
Over the years, we have changed our roles: She drove me places, now I drive her places. We used to talk about the books we read, then she was reading the books I wrote, then her eyesight failed and I was reading books to her. For years I had lunch with her every day and we'd watch her soap opera, but then she couldn't remember who was who and the whole thing became an irritation to her. That was during the 16 years she lived with my mother. Her friends had died and her eight siblings had died and her husband had died and she was biding her time. When the process seemed to be going too slowly to suit her, she went on a hunger strike that was worthy of the IRA. When she got to 103 pounds, two years ago, we put her in assisted living. She was 92.
The world is divided like this: One day my mother goes to visit, the next day it's me. I take my grandmother to my house, bend her over the sink, and wash her hair. We have a routine. Once it was painting rocks and baking molasses cookies; later it was shopping, or just trips to the grocery store. Now it's grooming. I have become one of those little Egyptian birds that stands on the back of a crocodile, digging its beak in between the scales. I shampoo, condition, blow-dry, braid, and pin. I put her in the perfect light of my kitchen window and tweeze the invisible hairs from her chin, and then she runs her fingers across her chin to check me. "Missed one," she says, tapping. I file her fingernails and paint them if she's in the mood. I fill my blue Le Creuset soup pot with warm water and apple cider vinegar and soak her feet. Then I sit on my kitchen floor and do her toes.
A note about the biblical significance of foot washing: There is real humility in the act. When people tell me I have a very glamorous life, I smile and think, "You know nothing about the feet." My grandmother has been known to squeal and say, "Ow! That was too close!" before I ever touch clipper to nail. Fancy pedicures are available at the assisted living home. I took her once, thrilled to have found such a meaningful way to spend my money. I sat with her through the whole thing, and while it seemed to go very well, she told me at the end that it wouldn't happen again. She did not like placing her feet in the hands of a stranger. "If you won't cut them, I'll do it myself," she said. But my grandmother's feet are as far away from her as China, and so I returned to my job.
Back in the days when my grandmother had a wallet with money in it and knew what she wanted to buy, I would count out the change for her in checkout lines. "Where would I be without her?" she would say to the disinterested teenager receiving the money. Then she would turn to me and say, "What's going to happen when you're my age? Who will take care of you? You'll be all alone."
And it's true. I have no children, and I never will. There will be no one who loves me, who will pluck out my chin hairs or run a Q-tip around in my ears, but I've never thought that the hope of free custodial care was reason enough to reproduce. At 39 I have to wonder what the chances are that I'll see 94 anyway. Life is, after all, a long obstacle course filled with car crashes and cancer. Certainly something will knock me off along the way.
"I'm saving my money," I tell her. "And when I'm your age, I'm going to rent myself the nicest granddaughter in the world. I'm going to rent one who's much better than I am. And when I die, I'm going to leave her everything." It's true, actually. That is my backup plan in case I live too long.
"You're smart," my grandmother says, squeezing my wrist. "You shouldn't have a baby." What she means is that she is my baby, and she would rather not share me.
After she went into assisted living, my grandmother made friends with food again and ate her way up to a record-breaking 180 pounds in a year and a half. When I took her to the doctor for her physical, she was mortified. "One eighty?" she said to me. "They must have weighed me with my sweater on."
"A 75-pound sweater?" I asked.
She handed it to me. "It's wool."
The doctor is pleased about the weight. Aside from her slipping mind and bad eyesight, my grandmother appears to be in glorious physical health, very possibly good for another ten years.
I want to believe I will be good for another ten myself. I remember my grandmother sitting on the edge of the bathtub, scrubbing my back when I was a child. Now she is in my tub and I am washing hers. They give good showers at the assisted living place, but there is nothing like a bath. Her skin, so recently stretched out, is pink and flawless. Her breasts are full. I wash every inch of her. She is mine, my body.
There was a time I thought that love was kissing, sweaty palms, desire. Now I know that love is this: sticking it out, the long haul. I pull her out of the tub, my chest and arms soaking, and stand her on a towel to dry.
"What is that stuff?" she asks. When I tell her it's lotion, she says that she's never heard of such a thing before. "But I like it," she says. "It's good."
I believe that liking lotion is a clear sign of life. I slather it on.